"Getting to Know Me" in Ms. Magazine

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Carlin Ross

This is the magazine article that launched Betty's career as a writer.  Originally, Betty wrote 18 pages for Ms. Magazine writing first person about her sex life focusing on the love affair she was having with herself.  

It was cut down to 3 pages BUT if readers wanted the full version they could mail a $3 check to Ms. Magazine and receive her complete manifesto "Liberating Masturbation".  Betty was on the west coast living at the Castro when the $3 checks came pouring in.  Nothing was written...she didn't even have a bank account...all she had was a title.  

Betty always says that Liberating Masturbation was a hand job because she personally mailed out each copy.  In her own words, "every time I mailed a copy I knew I was mailing an orgasm".  After selling thousands and thousands of copies, Random House bought the rights and her international best seller Sex for One was born.  

Here's the full article:

Masturbation has been a continuous part of my sex life since the age of five. It got me through childhood, puberty, romantic love, marriage, and it will, happily, see me through old age. I am not typical in this respect. As I have learned, very few women masturbate regularly once they’re past childhood exploration, and a lot of women have no memory of even childhood masturbation.

But I am typical in most other respects—I was subjected to the same barrage of negative sexual conditioning all women get. I was made to feel ashamed and guilty about masturbation. Even as an adult, I felt that masturbating meant there was something wrong with my sex life.

Coming from the “Bible Belt” in Kansas, I knew very well where the church and moralists stood on the subject of masturbation. But even my liberal, intelligent friends put down masturbation, making clear that it was a second-rate sexual activity. If there were any touching of my genitals to be done, my beloved should do it. My only source of sex information in those days was dreary marriage manuals and random bits of psychiatry. When I finally made it to the couch, therapists were mainly Freudians and into love and marriage, which was supposed to include passionate sex. So masturbation, especially in women, was considered either compulsive or infantile behavior. Mature, good sex was vaginal and included love and a meaningful relationship with a man.

Even if masturbation was “wrong,” I kept doing it. At 29, after much conflict over marriage versus art career and after several affairs that were supperromantic and monogamous, I got married—just in time to escape the horrible fate of going over the hill alone. Quite typically, my marital sex soon got down to twice a month—but even then my husband would come too fast, and I wouldn’t come at all. We would both be embarrassed, depressed, and silent. After he went to sleep, I would quickly and quietly masturbate under the covers. I did it without moving or breathing, feeling sick with frustration and guilt the whole time.

My marriage ended after five years of struggling to “adjust” and “work through our problems.” Any possibility of substituting bridge, golf, or work for a diminished sexuality had been ruined by my moderately healthy sexual beginnings. I had a continuous reminder from my masturbation that pleasure through sexual expression could be available to me. When I got divorced, I was a 35-year-old emotional virgin facing the terrors of “dating” again.

My first postmarital affair was a turning point. Both of us sexually starved, we plunged headlong into an intense, joyful, experimental physical exchange. My lover, just out of a 17-year marriage, was overjoyed to be completely open sexually, and so was I. Our exploratory conversations quickly got onto the subject of marriage, monogamy, and sexual repression, and I was able to tell him openly and honestly about my guilt-ridden marital masturbation. And he told me about his. The “toning down” of sex that had occurred in his long marriage and the subsequent lack of sexual communication had depressed him. Sometimes he would sneak another orgasm by masturbating in the bathroom just 30 minutes after lovemaking. He had longed for a more experimental relationship, but his only variety came from masturbation, which would have okay if he could have done it positively and joyfully. But, like me, he had felt sick with frustration and guilt. He had begun to regard himself as a “dirty old man,” and his self-esteem steadily sank.

As we shared information, I began to understand how our whole anti-sexual social system represses and controls us; and I was able to let go of my remaining sexual guilt. We both realized that masturbation had saved our sexual sanity—and we would never again consider it a second-rate sexual activity. It was very important for me that I had finally found someone else who had fought the same sexual battles, and who agreed with me about sex and masturbation without female-male sex-role distinction.

My art began to reflect my growing sexual affirmation. I felt so good about myself and my new sexuality that I started to transfer my discoveries in bed to the canvas. My first one-woman exhibition of erotic art was held in New York City in 1968. Naturally, the whole concept of displaying my sexuality publicly was frightening, but I had learned that the first enemy a person encounters on the path to knowledge is fear. And fear must be overcome by defying it. I had to fully feel the fear and to take the next step in learning. This understanding carried me through, but not without a lot of sweating. I had envisioned irate citizens throwing rocks, or the show getting busted for pornography, but I needn’t have. The exhibition was beautiful and enormously successful. Heroic, classical figures copulating behind huge sheets of brightly colored Plexiglas. My erotic art was still art and therefore acceptable.

I decided to devote my second show to the celebration of masturbation. Getting models to pose for me was difficult—but finally, with a little help from my friends, I drew four magnificent, life-size classical nudes masturbating. Everyone said I was nuts, that the drawings would never sell (absolutely true), but what I learned was invaluable.

The response to the drawings was fascinating and informative. I discovered that a lot of people did not masturbate, that some people did not know women ever masturbated (“Why should they?”), and that a vibrator pictured in one of the drawings made several men very hostile and defensive. One man remarked, “If that was my woman, she wouldn’t have to use that thing.” I found myself fielding hundreds of questions. Yes, I did it myself and loved it. No, you don’t get warts. Yes, I use live models. Yes, the woman with the vibrator in the picture has a boyfriend—he’s standing right over there. No, despite what society tells us, intercourse isn’t necessarily better—it’s just different. I like to do both.

I explained many times that seeking sexual gratification should be a basic drive, and that masturbation is our first explicitly sexual activity. It’s the way we discover our eroticism, the way we learn to respond sexually. Sexual skill and the ability to respond are not “natural”—at least not in our society. Doing what “comes naturally” for us is to be sexually inhibited. Sex is like any other skill or art form—it has to be learned and practiced.

It is my feeling that when a woman masturbates, she learns to like her own body, to enjoy sex and orgasm, and to become proficient and independent about sex. Our society does not really approve of sexually proficient and independent women. Which gets us to the double standard—the concept that men have the social approval to be aggressive (independent) and sexually polygamous, but that women should be nonaggressive (dependent) and sexually monogamous. We become fixed in a nonsexuality and a supportive role that induces us to seek security, rather than independence, new experiences, and sexual gratification.

I think that one of the best ways to make women accept and conform to this double standard is to deprive us of direct sexual self-knowledge—especially masturbation. In other words, deprive us of our own bodies and of a way of discovering and developing orgasmic response patterns. Start early. Instill the notion that female genitals are deficient and inferior and that women’s main social value lies in producing babies. Avoid any information about the clitoris and life-affirming orgasm. Prohibit touching of your genitals through the suggestion of supernatural punishment. Socially ostracize nonconforming women. Sexual repression is a vital aspect of keeping us in our “proper” role.

An important part of our sexual development is learning to like and accept all of ourselves, including our genitals—to become what I call “cunt positive.” Most women feel that their genitals are ugly, funny-looking, disgusting, smelly, and not at all desirable—certainly not a beautiful part of their bodies. A woman who feels this way is obviously going to have a lot of reservations about an intimate sharing with another person. We therefore need to become very aware of our genitals. We want to know how we look, smell, and taste—and how we vary.

Last year I produced a set of color slides of the genitals of twenty different women. I use the slides to create an aesthetic for female genitals in lectures and in my bodysex workshops (physical and sexual C-R groups). Because most women do not have a visual image of their own or other women’s genitals, they find the slides reassuring, informative, and healing.

The slides reveal a vast range of differences and similarities in the color, texture, size, and shape of women’s genitals. Women with extended inner lips who thought themselves deformed saw many other women with the same genital configuration; the brownish color of some genitals turns out to be natural and not the result of aging or childbirth. The range of differences between the clitoris and vaginal opening may explain why some women never achieve orgasm through penetration only: if the clitoris is close to the vaginal entrance, it is more likely to receive indirect stimulation with penetration. How many women are suffering or confused from this lack of fundamental information?

Although this may sound frivolous, I find that trimming or shaping the pubic hair enhances genital awareness. It gives me the chance to explore my genitals with the same kind of attention that I used to lavish on my face and hair. (I’ve spent much of my adult life fixated on my face and hairstyle while the rest of my body has gone unexplored.)

I now feel that masturbation is a form of meditation on self-love. When I masturbate, I create a space for myself in the very same way I would for a special lover—soft lights, candles, incense, music, colors, textures, sexual fantasies, anything that turns me on. If I use my hand, I also use oil or cream. The slippery, moist feeling of oil on my genitals is very sensuous. I use one finger or my whole hand, making circular motions, above the clitoral body, below, on top, or to the side. I experiment with several techniques—going slow, fast, soft, firm, observing the arousal potential of each. I’ll lie on my stomach, side, back; put my legs up and also stretch them out. I have also experimented with watching myself in a mirror. I saw that I didn’t look awful or strange—I looked sexual and wonderfully intense.

Some women achieve orgasm by pressing their thighs together and squeezing and tensing the muscles rhythmically. It is impossible for me to experience orgasm this way, as I require more direct stimulation. I have also had orgasms by letting water run on my genitals in the bathtub. The pressure can be easily controlled and water is symbolically pleasing.

For the past two years I have been experimenting with different vibrators. I have found that the vibrator gives me the strongest and most consistent form of stimulation and is especially good for women who have never experienced orgasm. It also overcomes the problem of your hand or arm getting tired while masturbating manually. Some women complain that the vibrator simply makes them go numb. Of course, if you put the vibrator directly on your clitoris and don’t move either the vibrator or your your body, you will numb out. I always use a bit of material between me and my vibrator—a piece of velvet, satin, fur, a towel. I move the vibrator back and forth besides rocking my pelvis forward and back and around. It’s very much like dancing, and I love to masturbate with music and follow the musical buildup to orgasm.

Some women I know have put such tremendous pressure on themselves to have orgasms, that they have not developed the capacity for pleasure in the buildup of sexual tension. I encourage them to spend several self-lovemaking sessions without performance demands, just bringing themselves up slowly . . . experiencing the pleasurable sensations and the fantasies. Sometimes when I feel I’m getting close to coming, I drop back—tease and please myself. When I have an orgasm, I don’t stop stimulation. I just soften up, and stay with the good feelings. I’ll let the pleasure come with movement, breathing, sounds, or words. If I feel like it, I’ll go on to another buildup and a second orgasm, spending at least 30 minutes to an hour. We have been conditioned to make love as though we are rushing to an appointment.

Joyful masturbation and self-love naturally flows over into a sexual exchange with another person. We can give and receive love best when we feel good about ourselves. Because I am secure about my sexual response and orgasm, I feel free to stimulate my clitoris along with penetration—or to show my partner what turns me on. During oral sex, I can state my preference—giving my partner necessary feedback on what pleases me. There are many positions where I can use the vibrator while being penetrated, enhancing my partner’s sensation as well. I have never met a person whom I would consider a good lover who wasn’t totally turned on by any information I could give about what turned me on.

Exploring my sexual potential has taken me on many paths of learning and change. Reclaiming my body as a source of strength and pleasure has given me power over my own life and the freedom to design my sex life creatively, just like painting a picture. Self-sexuality, along with heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and group sexuality is simply all part of human sexual behavior.
Betty Dodson is an artist turned writer-lecturer-teacher on the subject of human sexuality. She conducts bodysex workshops for women across the country. This article was adapted from her illustrated booklet, “Liberating Masturbation,” which can be obtained by sending $3 to Betty Dodson, c/o “Ms.” Magazine, 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York 10017.

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